I’m standing in a meeting room on a Tuesday night in early spring with a group of ministers in training. We’re designing the ‘ideal church’ on A3 paper with coloured pencils and markers. They have free reign. There is no planning permission or listed building consent required, no limit on the budget and no need for committee approval.
At the end of the session we look at their designs. All the groups, without exception, have put a space specifically for children near the front. One has designed a circular church with a children’s area in the centre, enfolded by a community of adults.
I ask them to think about the children and young people in the Bible. Names get called out: Isaac, Jacob and Esau, Moses in the bulrushes, Samuel, the infant Jesus, Jairus’ daughter, the child who shared his lunch, the child Jesus called to him as an example to the disciples.
“Children are a heritage of the Lord,” the psalmist says (Psalm 127:3). And scripture is filled with praise at the news that a child is to be born, from the song of Hannah (1 Samuel 2:1-10) to the radical poetry of the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55). Among the people of Israel, the presence of children is a source of joy and hope; a promise that they will not be extinguished or die out. Do our churches treat them that way? And do we take them seriously as a model of what we are supposed to be, as Jesus told us to?
They are spaces for play, but are different from secular spaces
Where do we put the children?
There are many ways to answer this question in a metaphorical sense: in the sense of how we worship, how we create church culture and how we nurture faith.
But let’s take it literally. Looking at our worship spaces, where do we put the children? And what does that mean in terms of how they experience being in God’s house, and worshiping him?
This isn’t about whether we have separate age group teaching or whether we’re all together in the main church for the whole time. Regardless of what programmes you have on Sundays, there is probably some time when you’re all together. It might be once a month, it might be every week or it might be the beginning and end of the service with separate groups in the middle – there are many ways to do this. But during the times that we are all together, where do we put the children?
Many churches have children’s corners. They’re intended to break a cycle that can be damaging to the whole church where a young child struggles to sit still for an hour, the parents are embarrassed and feel self-conscious, some of the other worshipers get upset, the parent tries hard to quiet their child, it doesn’t work, and then the child ends up screaming and gets taken out. That’s not good for anyone.
Providing a children’s corner can be great for the parents and other adult worshipers. By providing a space for parents to take their children when the squirming and noise begin you can break that cycle. With fewer tantrums, those concerned or even hostile toward the presence of children may become more accepting. Plus, parents see that there is a place for their children to move around.
What about the children’s experience?
We’ve all seen some pretty grim children’s corners. Rev Dr Sandra Millar calls them ‘dead teddy graveyards’. They’re often hidden away at the back of the church. It’s hard for the children to hear what’s going on, and it’s impossible to see. They may even be separated from the main body of worshipers by a barrier or by an aisle or communal space.
They tend to be filled with secular toys that are in a poor condition, often with pieces missing. Maybe there’s a plastic tub of mostly broken crayons and some old paper. Perhaps there’s a mural on the wall made by a children’s group in 1997, which is faded from decades of sunlight and provides no connection for the children in the space below it. There may even be a bookshelf with a few children’s Bibles and multiple copies of Where’s Spot?
What does it feel like to be relegated to a space like this?
What message are we sending children about their place in our communities and their place before God? And how do these spaces encourage children to learn about how we worship or engage with our stories of faith?
Many churches are beginning to believe we can do better. They’re not getting rid of children’s corners, but are seeing them differently: not as a way to distract the children, but as a space dedicated to engaging children in worship. They are spaces for play, but are different from secular spaces. After all, as New Zealand-based children’s, youth and young adult minister, Alice Bates says: “You don’t have the same magazines you’d have in the doctor’s surgery in a church for adults. So I don’t think the same things should be in a kid’s space as an ordinary play area. I’ve tried to focus on the idea that it’s still a sacred space.”
At St Mary’s Church in Lawford there is a very new space with bags containing faith-based stories, some Bible stories and books about communion, with objects to play with around the stories they read. Volunteer leader Gill Heron explains the aim of the space: “To encourage families to talk faith together, to give them some tools to see how they can encourage spirituality all week – not just on Sundays – and also to involve the children in the liturgical life of the church.”
Rev Ally Barrett created a children’s corner with similar goals: “We wanted a dedicated space for children’s Christian books and liturgical toys that is visible as soon as you come into church.” Not only would it provide space for children to engage with spiritual play, but it would “raise the profile of children in church”. And from a mission point of view, the space would “enable parents…to support one another in bringing their children to church”.
While some may be worried that children playing – even in spiritually imaginative spaces – aren’t worshiping ‘properly’, it’s worth considering the way children engage with worship. Alice Bates says: “The children sing and join in the liturgy when they are playing. They are more engaged in this way and some of the drawings they do in this space are incredible.”
In her book, Offering the Gospel to Children, Gretchen Wolff Pritchard writes about a 6-year-old who is given drawing materials in church. Having her hands occupied “freed her mind to listen” and resulted in drawings that were deeply spiritual in nature. Children who are able to use a spiritually rich children’s corner are surrounded by the sights, smells and sounds of worship. And they are able to move freely around a space where everything they engage with is connected to the Christian faith.
Where do we put the children? Right in the midst of us
How do we create a spiritually imaginative space?
First you need to ask yourself: what is this area for? Rev Ruth Pyke says: “Is it primarily for children and parents to use during worship? Will it be used by visitors to the church for weddings and funerals? What will it say about welcome to children and their families?”
You may find it helpful to sit in different spaces during worship so you’re at a child’s height, and think about what you can see and hear from there. If you already have children in your church, include them and those who care for them in the planning and creation of the space. You also need to think about the practicalities. Can it be easily packed away and set up again? Do you need permission from church or legal authorities for any changes you’re thinking of making? Who will tidy it and make sure things are put back where they belong on a regular basis, and be responsible for repairing or replacing broken items?
This can help to reinforce the idea that raising children in the faith is the job of the whole church. Rev Robb Sutherland worked with his church leadership team on welcome and inclusion, and said: “I now have a large group of people on the lookout for faith-based toys wherever they travel…I get handed lovely things like a wooden nativity jigsaw for toddlers with ‘I saw this in [insert northern seaside town] and thought the children could play with it’.” If you have knitters or woodworkers in your congregation, they could be invited to make items for this space.
What message are we sending children about their place in our communities and their place before God?
What should we include? Rev Ruth Pyke suggests thinking along the following three lines:
You could have a set of baskets or bags themed around certain stories. An Easter basket could include a Jesus doll, a wooden egg cup that looks like a wine glass, toy bread, a book of the Easter story, a donkey puppet for Palm Sunday and a set of caterpillar and butterfly finger puppets as a symbol of resurrection.
You could have a Jonah and the whale basket with a toy whale, a wooden boat, a wooden human figure, a non-fiction book about whales and a Jonah storybook.
A good shepherd basket might include a shepherd and sheep set, model railway fencing, fake grass and a book of Psalm 23.
One church has a Pentecost basket featuring a wooden stacking flame toy, pinwheels (to represent breath and wind), scarves in the colours of flames and wooden doves.
If your church is named after a saint, you could include a basket of objects related to the story of the saint’s life. Noah’s arks and nativity sets are easy starting points.
This may look very different, depending on your style of worship. We have communion every week, so I included a child-sized altar with a chalice and paten, toy bread (wooden bread with Velcro that can be “broken”) and LED candles.
Think about the actions and movements people make during worship, and any items they might use. How can these be replicated in ways that children can play with? Play is “the work of childhood” according to Italian educator Maria Montessori.
When children play it doesn’t trivialise the importance of what they are playing or reduce it in any way. On the contrary, it gives them a way to enter more deeply into an activity, make meaning out of it and assimilate it into their concept of themselves.
The Christian year
Again, this may vary depending on your style of worship. Many churches use different colours at different times of year. You may have a cloth or other items you can swap around to match these colours. You may want to create Christmas or Easter items for the space that change during the year, in addition to items that stay constant.
So, let’s ask again: where do we put the children? As with a good children’s corner, the answer is: we put them right in the midst of us. But we don’t just stick them there and hope for the best. We give them a space where they can explore the symbols, imagery and stories of the faith in age-appropriate ways, while surrounded by God’s people, and by the sights, sounds and smells of the worship of our Lord.
Shopping list ideas
- Noah’s Knits and Knitivity (available on Amazon)
- bakerross.co.uk (great seasonal crafts)
- eden.co.uk (a fabulous range of toys, including the Lord’s Prayer cube)
- notonthehighstreet.com (sells some super boats)
- revruth.files.wordpress.com (includes a knitting plan for the last supper)
- Schleich animals (available in most toy shops)
- stmichaelsworkshop.co.uk (Godly Play supplies)
- trustytoys.co.uk (sells shepherds and an ark)
- tts-group.co.uk (church-relevant toys)
- mustardseedkids.co.uk (wooden stacking toys that are good for telling stories, as well as doll baptism gowns and puzzles)